Every winter, Manitoban Patty Wiens used to put her beloved bicycle away and drive to work instead.
But the cost of gas and parking in downtown Winnipeg alone was proving to be a burden, so last year she bundled up and biked to work all winter. Pretty soon, she was falling in love with winter biking.
When spring came around, she sold her car.
“Now I am about $12,000 richer every year,” she told Global News.
According to one estimate, the average cost of owning a car in Canada — including gas, maintenance, insurance, parking and interest — comes to around $1,077 a month.
For many Canadians, that’s simply not a cost they feel is worth bearing these days, as the cost of living remains a significant challenge across the country.
Toronto-based bike advocate Lanrick Bennet said his family bought a car eight years ago, but since they started biking in the colder months, they find their car spends more time parked than on the road. They are considering not renewing their lease when it’s up.
“My daughter was nine years old, and (one day) she came into the kitchen and told us that she was going to start riding to school. And so I had to go out and buy myself a bike so that I could ride with her to her school,” he said.
Doug Clark, president of the advocacy group Bike Calgary, said he started riding to work in the late 1980s and gently eased into winter riding. He says he saved enough over the years from not having to pay for another car to retire early.
“It meant our family could do with one less vehicle. There was less insurance, less vehicle costs, maintenance, all of that. I truly think that in my case, doing it over a 30-year period, I was able to retire early because I didn’t have all those extra expenses throughout my working career,” he said.
Tim Schaefer, another Calgary resident, said his family owns a car, but they make a call on when to use it depending on the kind of trip they need to make. Not every trip, he says, needs a car.
“If a journey is about five kilometres one way, I always think about using my bike first,” he said. “And likewise, if it’s around one kilometre, I typically look to walk it first.”
In addition to the financial benefits of giving up the car, many swear by the physical and mental health benefits that come with riding a bike.
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Schaefer said that in addition to his own fitness levels improving, he’s noticed a marked difference in the physical and mental well-being of his children, who are now spending more time outdoors.
Wiens said she feels happier every day she bikes.
“I got this jolt of adrenaline and this increase in my mental health wellness that I did not expect,” she said.
Clark said winter cycling, once seen as an extreme activity, is now being looked at as a fairly normal way to commute in Canadian cities, with cities like Saskatoon encouraging a winter biking week.
“(In the past when) I have told people I cycle in the winter, they think I’m a little crazy. But not so much anymore. I think it’s actually becoming a little more accepted here in Calgary.”
This is particularly true of Canadian cities that boast of good cycling infrastructure. Montreal, for example, has bike counters set up across the city. The first 12 days of 2024, some of which saw fairly heavy snowfall, saw 83,789 bike trips taken across the city.
Jasmine Steffler and Patrick Murphy, a Montreal-based couple who run the popular YouTube channel ‘Oh! The Urbanity,’ said they have noticed viewers engaging more and more with the content they’ve created around winter cycling.
They said the biggest challenge they hear about from their viewers is not the cold, but the lack of winter-maintained bike paths and bike lanes.
“If you’re in a place like Montreal, where they actually plow and maintain the bike lanes, it’s so much easier,” Murphy said.
Steffler said people using bicycles in the winter don’t need to take an all-or-nothing approach.
“Not every winter day is created the same. There are days when it’s a snowstorm and even we wouldn’t want to go out in that. But there’s a lot of drier days, milder days where it’s really not that big of a difference than in the summer to go for a bike ride,” she said.
“Last year, we had a few days that were -30 C with a wind chill of -40 C, which is very difficult to bike in (and) very difficult to walk in. But that was just three or four days of the whole winter,” Murphy added.
But is that feasible for provinces like Alberta or Saskatchewan, where the colder days are more common? Schaefer says the cold could actually help create more pleasant biking conditions.
“When you get close to zero, with the salt on the pathway, you get a lot of slush and wet snow. That makes things messy. But when things are like -10 C and lower consistently, you kind of get this hard-packed snow that happens. It’s just like riding on a dirt road.”
Not everyone lives close enough to their place of work to bike and some may need a vehicle to transport kids or shop for groceries. For such people, Bennet says e-cargo bikes are a great option.
“I take my son to play football in the winter. He hops on the back of my cargo bike. I’ve seen parents taking their kids to hockey, and they’re just throwing the hockey bag of the kids in the front or back of the cargo bike and off they go,” Bennet said.
The electric assist on an e-bike also helps to cover longer distances without getting tired. Wiens said her commute was cut in half when she went electric. She bought an expensive e-bike, but she said it still saved her money and time.
“I have the Cadillac of e-bikes. I spent a lot of money and I use it for everything. (After I sold my car), just the money that I used for insurance covered more than half of the cost of my e-bike. I have a very high-end e-bike that I use year-round,” she said.
Bennet said dressing for being on your bike in the winter is not unlike dressing to do anything outside in the winter.
“You’ve got your boots and you’ve got your hat and you’ve got the right type of jacket to be able to go out into the winter. You do all of that and then you get to hop on a bike,” Bennett said.
According to Clark, it’s important to layer while biking because often, new winter cyclists can find that their bodies heat up after a few minutes on a bike. Layering ensures you are able to take an extra layer off if the day gets warm. This is particularly true in cities like Calgary, where the Chinook winds can raise temperatures quite suddenly in the middle of winter.
While some people prefer to get expensive fat bikes, Murphy said it might make more economic sense for some people to get a cheap second-hand “beater” bike and get studded winter tires for it.
“When you’re riding in the streets, you’re going to be dealing with salt, slush and other stuff that kind of degrades your bike over time. And it’s nice to have the peace of mind of not really worrying that much if your bike was just $100 or $150,” he said.
Clark said some Alberta municipalities, like Banff, offer subsidies to get studded winter tires for bicycles.
But the biggest piece of advice that some advocates have about winter biking is to just do it.
“We have this idea that Canada is cold, and it is in a lot of contexts, but we know how to deal with the cold,” Murphy said.
Wiens said anyone curious about winter biking can start small and ease into the winter.
“Just go around the block, see how it feels,” she said. “Just do it on the nicer days.”